A primer on how to navigate the Beltway HOT lanes, set for completion in 2013

SOURCE: | The Washington Post - June 6, 2010
By Robert Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 6, 2010

"High-occupancy toll" is the wrong name for the new lanes that will become part of the Capital Beltway's western side in Virginia by 2013. They should be called the "high-occupancy or toll" lanes, because it's either/or, not both. We need to make this easier for drivers to understand. Here's a start.

The rules

The four new lanes will be free for carpools with at least three people aboard and for buses, motorcycles and emergency vehicles. (Hybrids will not have an exemption to use the HOT lanes.) Other drivers can use the lanes if they pay the toll. Big, 18-wheel trucks won't be allowed in the lanes. Smaller trucks can use them if they pay the toll. The lanes will be HOT all the time.

Variable tolls

What drivers pay will be based on the level of congestion and the distance they travel. Officials with Fluor-Transurban, the consortium of two private companies that operate the lanes in partnership with the Virginia Department of Transportation, say they don't know what the toll rate will be at any given time. Maybe 10 cents a mile in light traffic, maybe a dollar a mile in heavy traffic. The operators want to make money. You want to make it to work or your next appointment on time.

Beltway habits

Fluor-Transurban doesn't expect drivers will use the lanes every day. They'll use them when they calculate that it's worth the price to shorten time spent on the Beltway. Most drivers in that segment of the Beltway don't use it for the entire length. For many, it's a relatively short connector road between two other segments of their commute. Fluor-Transurban thinks the average trip in the HOT lanes will cost $5 to $6.

Not like the ICC

Although the region's other new toll route, Maryland's Intercounty Connector, also will vary its rates, this is not the same as what planners refer to as the "dynamic" tolling on the HOT lanes.

The connector will be an express toll road with rates that vary by time of day rather than the level of congestion. There's no exemption for carpoolers. On the ICC, if you know the hours you're traveling, you'll know the rate you'll pay.

What drivers will pay for

Drivers complain to me as much about the unreliability of their trips as the congestion. They'd like to go faster, and they'd like their arrival time to have some consistency. The HOT lane operators promise a bit of both. Remember, the fact that they want to make money works in your favor. If you don't believe their promise that you'll be able to drive at about 55 mph in free-flowing traffic, you won't buy their product.

What drivers will need

To use the lanes, drivers must have a transponder. An E-ZPass will work, but carpoolers will need to use a special version being developed. It will have a switch for a carpool setting. This is another distinction between the HOT lanes and the ICC: Drivers on the ICC who don't have transponders will get a toll bill, with a $3 surcharge, based on a photo taken of their license plate upon entering the highway. The HOT lanes don't plan to bill that way.

What drivers see

Approaching the HOT lanes, which will be on the driver's left side, there will be electronic displays showing the toll rates. How those signs will say that is still under discussion. The idea is to convey the rate in a way that's prominent and easy to understand so drivers can make their decisions quickly and safely.

After that, there's not much to see. There won't be any tollbooths. The toll rate is locked in when a sensor detects the vehicle's transponder. Scores of other sensors along the lanes will be measuring traffic flow. That information will be relayed to the HOT lanes operations center, where the toll rates are set. But they're not changing your rate once you're in the lanes. The only other sensor affecting your trip is the one that records your exit, to determine the distance traveled.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company